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4342Here's the Meat of the Problem - washingtonpost.com

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  • DJ Brook
    Jul 31 8:22 PM

      The Meat of the Problem
      By Ezra Klein
      Wednesday, July 29, 2009

      The debate over climate change has reached a rarefied level of policy
      abstraction in recent months. Carbon tax or cap-and-trade? Upstream or
      downstream? Should we auction permits? Head-scratching is, at this
      point, permitted. But at base, these policies aim to do a simple thing,
      in a simple way: persuade us to undertake fewer activities that are bad
      for the atmosphere by making those activities more expensive. Driving an
      SUV would become pricier. So would heating a giant house with coal and
      buying electricity from an inefficient power plant. But there's one
      activity that's not on the list and should be: eating a hamburger.

      If it's any consolation, I didn't like writing that sentence any more
      than you liked reading it. But the evidence is strong. It's not simply
      that meat is a contributor to global warming; it's that it is a huge
      contributor. Larger, by a significant margin, than the global
      transportation sector.

      According to a 2006 United Nations report
      livestock accounts for 18 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.
      Some of meat's contribution to climate change is intuitive. It's more
      energy efficient to grow grain and feed it to people than it is to grow
      grain and turn it into feed that we give to calves until they become
      adults that we then slaughter to feed to people. Some of the
      contribution is gross. "Manure lagoons," for instance, is the oddly
      evocative name for the acres of animal excrement that sit in the sun
      steaming nitrous oxide into the atmosphere. And some of it would make
      Bart Simpson chuckle. Cow gas -- interestingly, it's mainly burps, not
      farts -- is a real player.

      But the result isn't funny at all: Two researchers at the University of
      Chicago estimated that switching to a vegan diet would have a bigger
      impact than trading in your gas guzzler for a Prius
      <http://geosci.uchicago.edu/%7Egidon/papers/nutri/nutriEI.pdf> (PDF). A
      study out of Carnegie Mellon University
      found that the average American would do less for the planet by
      switching to a totally local diet than by going vegetarian one day a
      week. That prompted Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the United Nations
      Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to recommend that people give
      up meat one day a week to take pressure off the atmosphere. The response
      was quick and vicious. "How convenient for him," was the inexplicable
      reply from a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. "He's a

      The visceral reaction against anyone questioning our God-given right to
      bathe in bacon has been enough to scare many in the environmental
      movement away from this issue. The National Resources Defense Council
      has a long page of suggestions for how you, too, can "fight global
      warming." As you'd expect, "Drive Less" is in bold letters. There's also
      an endorsement for "high-mileage cars such as hybrids and plug-in
      hybrids." They advise that you weatherize your home, upgrade to more
      efficient appliances and even buy carbon offsets. The word "meat" is
      nowhere to be found.

      That's not an oversight. Telling people to give up burgers doesn't poll
      well. Ben Adler, an urban policy writer, explored that in a December
      2008 article
      for the American Prospect. He called environmental groups and asked them
      for their policy on meat consumption. "The Sierra Club isn't opposed to
      eating meat," was the clipped reply from a Sierra Club spokesman. "So
      that's sort of the long and short of it." And without pressure to
      address the costs of meat, politicians predictably are whiffing on the
      issue. The Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill, for instance, does nothing
      to address the emissions from livestock.

      The pity of it is that compared with cars or appliances or heating your
      house, eating pasta on a night when you'd otherwise have made fajitas is
      easy. It doesn't require a long commute on the bus or the disposable
      income to trade up to a Prius. It doesn't mean you have to scrounge for
      change to buy a carbon offset. In fact, it saves money. It's healthful.
      And it can be done immediately. A Montanan who drives 40 miles to work
      might not have the option to take public transportation. But he or she
      can probably pull off a veggie stew. A cash-strapped family might not be
      able buy a new dishwasher. But it might be able to replace meatballs
      with mac-and-cheese. That is the whole point behind the cheery PB&J
      Campaign, which reminds that "you can fight global warming by having a
      PB&J for lunch." Given that PB&J is delicious, it's not the world's most
      onerous commitment.

      It's also worth saying that this is not a call for asceticism. It's not
      a value judgment on anyone's choices. Going vegetarian might not be as
      effective as going vegan, but it's better than eating meat, and eating
      meat less is better than eating meat more. It would be a whole lot
      better for the planet if everyone eliminated one meat meal a week than
      if a small core of die-hards developed perfectly virtuous diets.

      I've not had the willpower to eliminate bacon from my life entirely, and
      so I eliminated it from breakfast and lunch, and when that grew easier,
      pulled back further to allow myself five meat-based meals a month. And
      believe me, I enjoy the hell out of those five meals. But if we're going
      to take global warming seriously, if we're going to make crude oil more
      expensive and tank-size cars less practical, there's no reason to ignore
      the impact of what we put on our plates.

      /Ezra Klein can be reached at //kleine@...
      <mailto:kleine@...>// or through his blog at

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